By Laurence Pantin
Friday, April 6, 2001
From Wichita Falls, Tex., to the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, from Bangladesh to Buenos Aires, women edited print and broadcast media for one day or one week in an U.N. initiative to demonstrate what happens when Women Rule the News.
(WOMENSENEWS)--When the women editors and journalists in Wichita Falls, Tex., swapped roles with their male counterparts for one day, a heated news argument erupted over the choice of the day's top story: The men wanted a police story about a peeping tom; women wanted a story about women fighting for their rights.
At the Wichita Falls Times Record News, the women finally won, but only because they held the key positions on that day. All other times, the peeping tom and stories like it would have prevailed.
"It made us aware of the different perspectives we bring to the table than the guys. We really didn't know it would be that different, but it was," said Bridget Knight, feature editor and editor of last year's female-run edition of the paper.
"They were looking for the big headlines," she said. "We were looking for analysis."
That was last year, the first time that the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, called on news media to mark International Women's Day March 8 by turning the decision making to women for one day during the month. More than 1,000 newspapers, broadcast and Internet media from 64 countries participated.
The resistance to naming women to more positions of editorial responsibility was illustrated last year by the statement from the editor in chief of an Egyptian publication.
"Women write with their lipsticks. They use them much better than the pen."
This year UNESCO asked media outlets to join "Women Make the News," in which women would call the shots about the news for a week. Only about 100 organizations participated because of difficulties associated with the longer time frame. Eight hundred Bolivian media outlets which had participated last year decided not to participate this year. U.S. media were conspicuous by their absence.
In Wichita Falls, women again ran the newsroom this year for one day. But this time it was just another hard-news day, women and men agreed on the obvious news choices.
But in almost all cases, both last year and this year, the differences were striking. Women ran more stories about women and their issues.
This year, some media organizations promoted junior women reporters or editors to the positions of their male bosses for a few days. Some published special reports and special editions on women's issues; some created special websites.
"It's only when people are in decision-making positions--whether they are men or women, whatever cultural background, race, orientation they have--that they have any influence on the programming or orientation of the media," said Belinda Hopkinson, project consultant at UNESCO.
"So, unless women are equally represented, their voices will not be heard," she said in a telephone interview.
Women comprise 41 percent of the journalists in the world, according to a widely cited global report by the World Association for Christian Communication, a nonprofit organization promoting democracy and Christian values. The report was published in 2000.
But women hold only 12 percent of the top posts in media companies, according to a 1995 report by UNESCO. A 1997 survey by the International Women's Media Foundation found that almost 60 percent of respondents, women journalists, said that not even one out of 10 top decision makers in their companies was a woman.
"It's only with those numbers that one can see that there is a barrier," said Monique Perrot-Lanaud, former president of the French Association of Women Journalists in Paris. "There is no reason, since we are nearly as numerous in the profession, for us not to be as numerous among its chiefs."
In the United States, only 13 percent of the top executives of media, telecommunications and e-companies are women, according to a recent report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The report also said that women comprise only 9 percent of these companies' boards of directors and have only 3 percent of the most powerful positions, the "clout" titles.
In U.S. newsrooms, only 34 percent of the supervisors are women, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Women are only 20 percent of the news directors, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
Women have very few positions of power in the U.S. media, because U.S. media corporations are almost always owned or controlled by men, added Martha Allen, director of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C.
However, one participant in the UNESCO event believes it is not the ownership of the outlets but the multiple demands on women's time that explains the lack of women in top jobs.
"It's not that we're being kept out," said Knight, the features editor at Wichita Falls. "It's just that we're saying, 'No way. I don't want it.' For some of those jobs, because of hours, because of demand, because of flexibility that's needed--we just don't have it because of our families."
Whatever the reason for the lack of women with clout titles in the media, news outlets may suffer from their absence. When women do have decision-making power, the news often looks different. The obvious stories are still there, but there is more texture, more nuance, more about women, some of the event's participants say.
Reports of what occurred at the participating media outlets this year are just beginning to trickle in.
When Marie Benoit, features editor at the Malta Independent on the Mediterranean island, took over while the editor was away on a business trip, she and her team ran very different fare. This included an interview with a woman gynecologist about the difficulties she faces as a doctor and a mother and a story about the laws affecting children born out of wedlock, pointing the bias in favor of fathers.
When her editor returned, he called the work of the women's team a "childish initiative" and ruled it out for next year. He said they missed a major story, a parliamentary report on local councils by the leader of the opposition. Benoit said she never was informed that such a story was in the works.
But the equivalent of the publisher was very pleased "and he said that's how he thinks the newspaper should look," Benoit said in an email interview.
In Benin, women journalists became chief editor for one week "and celebrated the benefits they got from this experience," said Nana Rosine Ngangoue, editor in chief of French-language department of Inter Press Service. "It gave them more power and more self-confidence, besides a certain pride."
In Bangladesh, Muhammad Hilaluddin, director of Focal Point magazine, has assigned a woman journalist to investigative reporting throughout this year. The magazine then will analyze differences in male and female reporting styles and topics and study the reader response.
"I think women are more sensitive and sometimes this affects the way we write or work," said Laura Pintos, editor in chief of Metro Buenos Aires. "We are interested in the same subjects as men, but we are less afraid of including certain subjects and making them the main issues for our readers--education, health, human rights and so forth."
But in fact what people working in the media should remember, be they inposition to hire editors, or in position to be hired as editors, is thatgiving decision-making jobs to women in the media is not just a question ofequity, but also a question of democracy.
Ngangoue of the Inter Press Service in Benin summed up the point of the event by saying: "This initiative goes along with our view on the freedom of information and of expression."
Laurence Pantin is a journalist based in New York. She recently received an award from the Foreign Press Association to cover labor issues in Mexico and other international topics.